Leadership gravitates towards the person who can get up and say what he wants.

This is true. Isn’t it? But I didn’t say this. Neither did anyone from this century. It was said by Dale Carnegie back in the 1900s. The fact that this statement remains true even today is proof that it has stood the test of time and it is worth giving it a thought.

During my undergraduate degree, I was part of AIAA GIK chapter. It is a student-run society with branches all over the world to promote Aeronautics and Astronautics amongst college students. I started out as a volunteer during my freshman year and soon got inducted as a member. Within a year, I got the responsibility to lead the marketing team followed by being promoted to the head of technical division in my junior year.

Sounds like a fast progression? Well, I did perform my duties diligently and I think I got rewarded as per my fair share. I was quite happy and was all set to take on the leading role during my senior year. But I soon realized I was expecting a role that required leadership skills beyond my perceived leadership image.

Until this point, the teams I had led were small- 5 to 30 members. I had been an ‘easy-going’ leader. A leader who gives in when his team complains the target is beyond reach, instead of pushing his team to the limits. More often than not, in meetings, I shied away from getting up and saying what I wanted. Perhaps it was a lack of confidence or perhaps I didn’t want to disturb the ‘flow’ of the meeting. Whatever the reason was, it was now hurting my chances of taking the leading role in the society simply because of my perceived not up to the mark gravitas.

It was an Aha moment. A moment of realization of the mistake I had made. It was from that day onwards that I made a self-commitment to make sure that I contributed at least once to every meeting/discussion/seminar I attended. The contribution is often a thoughtful question or to speak about the implications of the solution being discussed. And it has surely made a difference.

Why does being able to stand up & speak matter?

Builds your Gravitas. When you become a contributing member (by contributing I mean intelligent contributions not generic questions), people start engaging with you more often and your perceived image is elevated. You soon become a person whom people will listen to and your opinion will be given weightage.

Makes you stand out. In meetings of a dozen or so people, most members are usually non-contributing. They are present either to be relayed information or for their approvals. If you start pitching in those meetings, it immediately makes you stand out from the crowd. One good way to do so that I learnt from Victor Cheng is to ask for the agenda of the meeting as soon as you get the meeting invite (usually a day or so in advance). Also, ask the presenter/speaker for any prepared meeting slide packs for you to go through in advance. It is by investing this extra half an hour that you get an excellent opportunity to not only get an idea of what is going to be discussed but also craft intelligent questions which will directly affect the business. If a solution is being presented, it might make sense to ask about the benchmarks present to gauge its success or whether we have a stop-loss contingency in case of a setback.

Keeps you highly focused (& attentive). Most large meetings are similar to classroom sessions where one or few presents and the rest listen. Given the short attention span of humans, it is not humanly possible to be fully present in that classroom or meeting in this case for the entirety of it. In college, the simplest way I discovered to hack my attention span was to take notes and ask questions. The same applies to professional life as well. By jotting meeting points and by taking an active part, you lock your mind within the walls of the meeting.

Overcome the hesitation barrier to ask tough questions. In large meetings, usually, the first contribution seems the most difficult. You want to present yourself in a way that makes others perceive you as more knowledgeable than you actually are. And it is in those particular contributions that you make blunders to have the reverse effect. Only when you contribute a few more times, in the same sessions, you ease into your own skin. That is when you get comfortable and no longer focus on others’ perceived image of you but rather on the discussion at hand. That is the point at which you are free to speak your mind- to ask tough questions and probe into the what-if scenarios. This is perhaps what Dale Carnegie referred to when he said ‘ Leadership gravitates towards the person who can get up and say what he wants’.

For the last three and a half years, I have been trying to keep up with my commitment to contribute to every meeting and seminar I am part of. Of course, there are times I slack but that is just being human. You should give this a try too- just for a couple of weeks. It might seem a little intimidating at first especially if you are an introvert but it gets easier with time. And in case if you are wondering, I did manage to get the leadership role that I wanted in my student-society after having to contest it. It turned out to be more difficult than I imagined but, it taught me a valuable lesson for life.